I’ve never been a fan of reality TV. I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan of television broadly, but something about the contrived competitions and manufactured confrontations of the reality genre is especially repellant. In my 30 years on earth, I’ve watched exactly one episode of Survivor, one episode of Jersey Shore, one episode of The Bachelor, one episode of Naked and Afraid and two episodes of Top Chef—none of my own volition. I’ve never been partial to fishing shows either except, of course, when the boss goes jugging for catfish in Kentucky or something.
That’s why, when my friend suggested we watch a competitive fishing reality show on Netflix last week, I didn’t expect to like it. I honestly didn’t like it at first, and I’m a little surprised we made it through the first episode. But I’m glad we did, because the show improves after a fumbling start.
“The Big Catch” initially aired in 2015 on BBC and pits eight British anglers of different backgrounds against one another in a series of challenges across the planet. Over the course of six episodes, they travel from Iceland to Cuba, to Laos, to Costa Rica, to British Columbia, and finally select a winner after a two-day tigerfish marathon in Zambia. In each country, the contestants participate in three competitions involving three species and three locations with various techniques. In Cuba, the anglers had to fly fish for bonefish, handline for snapper then spincast for tarpon. In Canada, they had to downrigger troll for Chinook, fly fish for bull trout then soak bait for giant white sturgeon. At the end of each episode, one angler is voted off the proverbial island by a panel of “expert” judges.
The program relies on many reality TV tropes with a decidedly British flair. Even in teamwork scenarios, the competitors are painstakingly polite to one another. The judges, however, seem to channel Simon Cowell by sharply critiquing the anglers’ decision making, technical prowess and overall success. That commentary is endearingly softened with English phrases, like when the host, Ben Fogle, announces, “Alright, anglers! Lines up and go dry out your Wellies!”
I might have enjoyed laughing at the Britishness and misadventure more than I liked the show on its narrative merits, but the visuals are definitely worth mentioning. The lion’s share of my Netflix watching is consumed by other BBC programing like Planet Earth, Blue Planet and The Hunt. Those shows make excellent background while tying flies or cooking with their soothing voice-overs and stunning visual content. That incomparable fish and wildlife cinematography carries over into The Big Catch, including B-roll plucked straight from Blue Planet. I could probably watch hours of sailfish herding and slashing sardines.
I’ve long held reservations about competitive fishing. Sure, fishing is inherently competitive on some level—two dudes in a boat will naturally try to outdo each other—but to place angling beside football feels borderline blasphemous. The Big Catch does play into that narrative. And it doesn’t help that the editors often selected clips prone to making anglers look like idiots. The show certainly doesn’t cast angling in the best light, but I got hooked anyway—to attempt my own cheeky British pun.
Though I didn’t want to like The Big Catch, I binged the whole series in a few days. In fact I got so caught up in it that I punched a couch cushion when the wrong angler was crowned champion. I still don’t think reality TV is my cup of tea, but if the BBC puts its substantial resources and talent behind something related to fish, they have my attention.
Feature image via BBC.